If you read blogs, chances are you've encountered WordPress without even realizing it. Since 2003, WordPress has emerged as the premiere blogging software package and content management system. Because WordPress remains Open Source software, users have developed an astounding number of templates and plugins to enhance your site or blog — the result can be a page rivaling many professionally designed sites.
When I decided to create a site for my freelance writing business, the choice was clear: since I wanted complete control over my website's content and did not want to spend much money on its design, WordPress best fit my needs. While blogs can be hosted through WordPress itself, I chose to store the software on my own site. After downloading and installing the software, I couldn't wait to design and publish my page — after all, I heard that bloggers consider WordPress the most user-friendly of all similar programs. But when I ran the software, all I saw was jumbled code—PHP and CSS. I had some passing familiarity with the codes, but hardly considered myself an expert. No one told me I'd actually have to enter code! And what the heck was an SQL database?
So I did what any reasonable, tech-savvy person would do: I panicked.
All my dreams of my beautiful, professional-looking site slowly dissolved. Would this mean I would have to take a crash course on CSS? I had no interest in programming or coding, nor did I have the time to learn essentially a new language. Customizing a template seemed complicated and the help screens provided little information for complete newcomers. What was I to do?
Over time, I finally stumbled my way through WordPress. After many mistakes, false starts, and even a site crash, I designed an informative site with a clean interface and eye-catching graphics, all without becoming a CSS and PHP expert. If you are thinking of trying WordPress but feel intimidated, as I did, read on for lessons learned in my WordPress adventure.
1. Consider the purpose of your site. Are you blogging? Will the site function as an online resume? Your site's purpose and content determine the design and layout. Think about your intended audience; will they appreciate elaborate graphics or sound loops? Before diving into WordPress, I sketched out an outline and diagram to organize my material. This step helped me determine which elements were essential, and would ultimately assist in my template selection.
2. Search the web for layout ideas. If you're designing a site to advertise your business, look at similar company's pages. Obviously Google is an essential search tool, but you may want to consult business associations related to your interests. They may provide guidelines for websites or at least list links to members' websites. This step taught me which elements were crucial to include, and also gave me ideas of what not to do as much as provided inspiration.
3. Choose a template. There's no need to reinvent the wheel — many WordPress users have created blog or web page templates for virtually any purpose, and they are highly customizable (although you may never have to alter any features). Search the WordPress Themes section for templates using keywords related to your site's subject. Technorati's WordPress tag page also lists blog posts that may be useful for your site. I found my site's template by first googling "wordpress templates for writers" and discovered a wealth of information(and examples) about appropriate graphics and layouts. Next I searched the WordPress site for similar themes, and found a free template that perfectly suited my business.
4. Let plugins do the work for you. Need to create an online resume? To paraphrase iPhone ads, there's a plugin for that. At first I thought I had to design certain facets of my site from scratch — for example, I wanted to post testimonials from clients and a FAQ section. I then executed a plugin search within WordPress, and found the appropriate applications. These easy-to-use plugins guided me through the setup process, allowing me to simply fill in the blanks with my information, then copy and paste a single line of code wherever I wanted the application placed. Designed and submitted by other WordPress users, these plugins can transform your site into a professional one with minimal effort. You may have to test out several apps before finding one that suits your needs, but installation and removal are easy. To find plugins, do a keyword search on the plugin page.
5. Back up your site. I learned this lesson the hard way when my SQL database (which stores all site elements) inexplicably became corrupted. Frantic, I realized that all of the content, plugins, and my chosen template had seemingly vanished. Download and install a plugin that backs up your entire site automatically. Then, if disaster strikes, you can merely reinstall your site from the database; plugins will instruct you on this process. Backup early and often—you'll be glad you did!
6. Learn a little CSS and PHP. If you are already familiar with HTML, this task shouldn't be difficult. Knowing code isn't essential for WordPress, but it can help exponentially if you want to customize a template. If you want to change any aspect of a theme, you must delve into the page's CSS and PHP. Often theme designers include a help file providing instructions on which codes may be altered. Cheat sheets are available, as well as documentation from the WordPress site. Reference books such as WordPress for Dummies can guide the new user through seemingly complicated commands. I am in no way a CSS expert, but I learned a few basic lines of code so that I can recognize the header, footer, and sidebar elements of the page, for instance.
7. Finally, don't panic! Millions of people use WordPress, and many are not professional coders. As I found out, sometimes stumbling through a new program — and making mistakes — is the best way to learn. Ultimately WordPress does much of the work for you, and finding the right template and plugins (along with some trial and error) can enable you to create the site of your dreams.